How to Unhook from Digital Distractions

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We spend more time online than ever before. According to this article, we’re now on the interwebs for twice as long each day as we were 10 years ago. This one reports the average American adult checks social media 17 times each day. So it’s not surprising I’ve heard from a few readers recently who’ve said one of their biggest challenges is around how to unhook from digital distractions so they can be present and engaged IRL.

I hear you, and it’s a tricky one. I am not a troglodyte: I love having wifi, a laptop and an iPhone. Having access to these things has improved my life in numerous ways. I’m grateful that I’m alive in a time where I can work online, and connect and stay in touch with people halfway across the globe. I have access to more books at my fingertips than in my local library. If I have a question about life, the universe, or anything, Google will (usually) provide.

But.

As with everything that is an integral part of our lives, we can get hooked. For many of us, the internet has fallen into the same category as food and money. These are things we use in our daily lives and depend on to exist as part of society. And because of this integration, unhooking is hard. If we want to unhook from things like alcohol, drugs or other common addictions, we have the choice to draw a bright line and go cold turkey. But for the things we use in our daily lives that come with great benefits, or (as in my case) rely on for our livelihood, quitting altogether isn’t an option.

How to Unhook from the Digital Distractions Internally

I spend the majority of my time online, so I’ve thought a lot about how to cultivate a healthy relationship with digital things over the last few years. By far and away the most helpful thing I’ve done to unhook from digital distractions isn’t a practical hack (although I will share some of those below). Instead, it involves internal accountability.

The first step is to get honest with myself and acknowledge I am misusing social media, email or the internet. Then, it’s time to get curious:

Why am I doing what I’m doing right now? 

What am I trying to distract myself from? 

How do I feel when I stop scrolling through Facebook and just sit and allow myself to experience what I’m feeling? 

What am I craving right now? What need am I trying to meet here (this chart might be a useful point of reference)? Is this really meeting those needs? If not, what else is a better alternative?

More often than not, we want to feel valuable, wanted, liked, appreciated, connected. We get FOMO; we fear missing out on being part of something, being in the know, being included. These are human needs and fears, and they’re important to acknowledge. But the internet (and everything on it) isn’t the only—nor the most effective—way to meet these needs. Once we get acquainted with what's really driving us, we can ask ourselves: what are my other alternatives for meeting this need right now?

How to Unhook from Digital Distractions Externally

N.B. This is something I talk more about with Clare Barry in this week’s podcast episode (coming Thursday). She shares some great insights and suggestions around disconnecting so, if this idea of unhooking resonates, I recommend checking it out.

1. Remove social media apps from your phone

I removed the Facebook and messenger apps last year, more due to security concerns than wanting digital space, and I haven’t missed them once. I’ve turned off push notifications for everything else that can become a crutch, including email, other social networks. That way, I get to engage with these things on my terms and in my time, rather than being at the whim of other people’s engagement.

2. Have a ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’ time

I find my switch on and switch off times ebb and flow depending on what I’m working on and what my schedule is like. Whatever is happening in life, though, I refrain from checking email or social media before a certain point in my morning (usually after I’ve had a coffee, done some journaling, and done some kind of meditation or breathing exercise). It’s not a huge amount of time, but having that space allows me to start the day on my own terms, rather than reacting to external bids for attention and events (seeing a pattern here?)

Equally, I always read before I go to sleep—a physical book or a Kindle, not a screen. Most of us know blue light inhibits our sleep quality, so we need boundaries around phones and screens. Even little habits like leaving your laptop or phone outside the bedroom (or plugging them in on the other side of the room) can help.

3. Change your multiple browser window habit

Just before writing this sentence, I checked my browser and lo, there were 8 different tabs open. Given it’s 9am, and this is one of my first work-related activities this morning, it’s safe to say curbing my multiple tab use is a work in progress… As this article points out, having multiple tabs open isn’t good for us . It provides the illusion of productivity but actually makes us more scattered, affects our focus and memory and leaves us feeling more disengaged and distracted. Again, the most effective way I’ve found to combat this is to check in regularly and close anything I don’t need so it’s not taking up unnecessary attention.

4. Use technology to help

You and I are by no means the only people figuring out how to unhook from digital distractions, so there are plenty of tools out there designed to help. I don’t use these myself (so can’t vouch for them), but I’ve had friends, colleagues and clients who have found them very helpful.

A lot of these are designed for work but are just as useful for those times when you want to break the distraction habit, become more conscious of your behaviour, and spend your time on more fulfilling activities.Some of the most popular include FocusFreedomSelf-Control, and Nanny.

5. Give yourself deliberate time to dillydally

Having said all the above, we don’t want to turn all digital downtime into an angsty, guilt-ridden experience, so I’m a big advocate of giving yourself deliberate time to enjoy it too. Allow yourself a window to go wild on Facebook, to roll around in email and immerse yourself in your online guilty pleasures. Having this time to enjoy it unhindered will make it much easier to be conscious about what you’re doing and why the rest of the time.

6. Replace your digital distraction with another activity

As with all habits, when we unhook from digital distractions the steps above are just part of the equation. We're far more likely to succeed if we can fill that space with an alternative go-to activity. Find something wholesome and life-enriching you've been meaning to spend more time on or try and practice switching to that whenever you notice you're mindlessly using digital distractions. Perhaps this is a good time to take up journaling, writing poetry, or working through The Artist's Way?

Your challenge: Get curious with yourself about your digital distraction using the questions above and stay open to what comes up.

How do you unhook from digital distractions? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Further reading: How to overcome FOMO & 9 simple suggestions for blissful self-care during winter

Image: Death to the Stock Photo

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